Seat Filler: NYC Theater Guide for February 2010

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com February 23 2010 4:00 PM ET

February may be Black History Month, but gay history seemed to be the new black thanks to a glut of gay-themed shows off-Broadway. As if to warm audiences up for the highly anticipated reopenings of The Temperamentals and Next Fall, last year’s little gay favorites that could, high-profile new productions like Yank! and The Pride compare same-sex affection and dysfunction of yesteryear and today, while an unorthodox revival of The Boys in the Band reminds us of the milestones we can celebrate and the obstacles we must still overcome.

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Picture it: World War II, 1943, the setting of York Theater Company’s Yank! which audiences will salute through March 21 at the Theatre at St. Peter’s. A 2005 Musical Theatre Festival hit, Yank! — written by gay brothers Joe and David Zellnik — uses an old diary to look through lavender-colored lenses at a time before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when gay hanky-panky could land you in jail. Bobby Steggert (Ragtime) is adorably affecting as Stu, a confused kid who gets drafted and falls for fellow private Mitch, a conflicted stud played by Ivan Hernandez. The reprise-heavy show’s a smidge flabby, but it’s got everything you want in an old-fashioned tuner: tap dances, torch songs, a drag number, and even a dream ballet. It’s directed by Igor Goldin and choreographed by Naked Boys Singing!’s Jeffry Denham, who also plays a predatory gay journalist at a real-life WWII ’zine called Yank.

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Transport Group’s startling production of The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 gay drama about a birthday shindig gone sour, is the must-attend soiree of the season. In the play’s first New York revival since 1996, director Jack Cummings III celebrates the humanity of even the nelliest self-flagellating stereotype here, but it’s really special because it’s a “site-specific environmental production” — which means that a 12th floor penthouse space at 37 W. 26th St. with a great view of the Empire State Building has been transformed into a 99-seat theater that looks like the host’s apartment. With the aid of homelike lamp lighting and the fact that the party progresses in real time, you do feel like you’re a part of the action — like watching a bitchy gay Avatar. Some guests may be hard to spend time with, but there’s not one weak link in the daisy chain of performers.

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Alexi Kaye Campbell and Joe Mantello, the gay first-time playwright and director, respectively, of The Pride, can be proud of their ethereal effort, even if its starry luster is superficial and unsatisfying. MCC’s American premiere of this London hit runs through March 28 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre with Brits Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw as two pairs of lovers named Oliver and Philip in 1958 and 2008. In ’58, Philip’s a self-hating husband who wants “an easier life” but rapes Oliver with a Brokeback spit-take. In ’08, Oliver is a self-hating park-cruiser who pushes away boyfriend Philip with his promiscuity. In 2010, it’s hard to care. Brideshead Revisited’s Whishaw (whose own sexuality depends on which rag you read) owns the play, but Andrea Riseborough wows as the ’58 wife/’08 gal pal and Adam James nails a number of supporting roles, including a Nazi role-play escort.

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A 50-year gap also divides the action in Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s accessibly insightful new play about property values, which is parked at Playwrights Horizons through March 21. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park is set in the same fictional Chicago house inhabited by the Younger family of the 1959 masterpiece. In the first act, Norris imagines the troubled white family that immediately preceded the Youngers. In the second, which takes place in 2009, we meet another white family moving into the regentrified hood — there’s a Whole Foods! — and learn how little has changed. One minor character, played by the ginger Brendan Griffin, is revealed to be gay in the second act, but only for the sake of his showing brief, mild offense to a joke about prison rape that, for the record, is actually pretty funny.

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Douglas Carter Beane, the man behind Broadway’s Xanadu, is having another gay year. Give It Up! — which he penned with life partner Lewis Flinn — is making its world premiere in Dallas, and his hit play The Little Dog Laughed just opened in London. Breathlessly directed by Scott Ellis, his latest satire, Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, which runs through April 4 at NYC’s Second Stage, stars John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle as married gossip columnists — a pretentious Noël Coward couple stuck in the Twitter era — who invent an intriguing socialite of indeterminate sexual orientation when a night out fails to provide them with fodder. Mr. Fitch is bisexual at best — his editor calls him a “faggot” and his wife a “fag hag” — but “it’s clear they’ve learned to love each other,” she explains. And though Beane’s smarty-pants script tries too hard, you’ll learn to love them too.

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Remember Wes Bentley, the plastic bag-filming Ricky in American Beauty? He’s back with his piercing blue eyes in Venus in Fur, David Ives’s exhilarating two-hander, directed with gusto by gay legend Walter Bobbie at Classic Stage Company though March 28. Bentley stars as a playwright auditioning actresses for his adaptation of Austrian author Sacher-Masoch’s erotic S/M novel of the same name, and Nina Arianda makes an auspicious off-Broadway debut as Vanda, a hot mess with skills who shows up late to read for the dominatrix that shares her name. While they indulge in improv, the lines between fantasy and reality blur as sexual tension rises, and Bentley even briefly channels a submissive female when they switch roles. The play’s slight bloat could use a corset, but skipping this one is punishable by spanking.

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Karen Finley, herself the first lady of performance art, revives the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her latest one-woman show, The Jackie Look, on uncomfortable display through March 27 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. No, Finley’s not drenching the icon’s naked body with chocolate here, but by the end of her rambling treatise (which she reads from a script on a lectern) on fame, fashion, and America’s fascination with Michelle Obama’s bare arms, one almost wishes that she would. Backed by a slipshod slide show of Camelot pictures peppered with other poignant images like La Pietà, Finley does end with a bang — what, too soon? — by screaming “you know!” at the audience, suggesting that Caroline Kennedy’s notorious speech patterns were a desperate cry for the acknowledgment of her family’s tragic history.

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Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? — a charming but rather picayune British play making its New York premiere with a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theatres through March 21 — asks that universal question by looking at the life of Kitty, a harried wife, mother, and cancer research exec tempted by adultery and tormented by her estranged parents. “What’s the use of a gay best friend?” Kitty asks of confidant Carl, a bearish 40-something law firm partner who’s sleeping with a 20-something lifeguard but ultimately concludes he’s “too old a dog for new tricks.” For starters, this gay bestie, played with comforting truth by Brian Keane, allows Kitty and her friends to envy, disparage, and “perv” on his sex life at dinner parties. It’s no wonder that the mindless enjoyment of Will & Grace factors so prominently into the plot.

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As if you had any doubts as to Alicia Silverstone’s talent, see Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still, a satisfying if slight four-person drama standing firm at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 27. Even with her face covered in scars, Laura Linney is luminous as Sarah, a photojournalist just home to her Brooklyn loft after surviving a roadside bombing in Iraq, but it’s the Clueless star as Sarah’s editor’s naive girlfriend who gives the show its comic spark by challenging Sarah. Whether or not Sarah’s relationship with partner James (a can-you-believe-he-played-Shrek Brian d’Arcy James) will survive remains to be seen, but there’s an even meatier issue addressed regarding the responsibility of journalists to aid their subjects if needed or, as Sarah maintains, to simply report. Yeah, tell that to Anderson Cooper, lady.

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Late Clueless actress Brittany Murphy starred as Catherine in the 1997 Broadway revival of A View From the Bridge. In the sturdy new revival of Arthur Miller’s 1956 drama, which ends April 4 at the Cort Theatre, a lovely and confident Scarlett Johansson takes on the 17-year-old, whose blossoming womanhood tempts her married uncle Eddie, a short-fused Brooklyn laborer played by smoldering Liev Schreiber. When Catherine courts Rodolpho, an Italian immigrant cousin the family takes in, a jealous Eddie ludicrously suggests that Rodolpho “ain’t right” because he’s blond, sings, and makes dress alterations. Clearly not calibrated to detect a European sensibility, Eddie’s wonky gaydar leads to the play’s most shocking moment: During a scuffle, Eddie desperately kisses Rodolpho on the mouth to see if he likes it or pulls away. I liked it a lot.

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In the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, which is presently scheduled through March 21, the great Victor Garber has smoothly slipped into the silk pajamas and smoking jackets of vainglorious 1930s West End matinee idol Garry Essendine, a role originally played by Coward himself. Those duds fit Garber beautifully, but Roundabout’s production as a whole comes off as a dud of a different cut. All the world’s a stage for a rakish, epicene wit like Garry, who floats through three farcical acts as he prepares for an African tour, yet the stage at the American Airlines Theatre — though the art deco set is a real stunner — is a bit sleepy. Rest assured there are some hard-earned laughs, largely thanks to supporting turns by Gossip Girl’s Holley Fain, Jeffrey’s Harriet Harris, and The Ritz’s manic Brooks Ashmanskas.

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Zac Efron may not have shared Daniel Radcliffe’s saddle in Equus as hoped, but High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu has taken over the lead in Broadway’s In the Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Bleu’s most recent stab at post-HSM fame, the CW’s The Beautiful Life, wasn’t pretty, but his sincere and underplayed portrayal of Usnavi, a Washington Heights bodega owner of Dominican Republic descent, is a rousing success — even if the Jamaican-Italian Brooklyn native doesn’t seem as authentic as Lin-Manuel Miranda, who originated the role and wrote the score of the bilingual 2008 Best Musical Tony winner. Miranda, it should be noted, is nine years Bleu’s senior, but the greatest compliment I can give the dashing 21-year-old, who thankfully tames his Justin Guarini curls under a cap, is that you’d never know he was a replacement.

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I sat through a few other queer shows this month that closed quickly, including White Horse Theater Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Clothes for a Summer Hotel and Daniel Mitura’s new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the only one worth discussing is Daddy (pictured), a promising new work by Dan Via, which ended its buzzworthy two-week run at TBG Arts Center on February 13. Out CSI and BearCity star Gerald McCullouch starred as Colin, a newspaper columnist with a penchant for PYTs. When enigmatic, volatile 21-year-old Tee (Bjorn DuPaty) becomes Colin’s lover, the columnist’s suspicious friend Stew (Via) uncovers a secret that put my jaw on the floor. Thoughtful and sharply written, the play just needs a new director in the future who won’t cloud it with clumsy curtain-shifting scene changes.